Tim Vickery
Tuesday August 5th, 2008

The Olympic soccer tournament hardly seems viable in its current format. It's not hard to understand the howls of anguish from the European clubs over having to release their players.

The World Cup is a huge trade show for soccer, and it makes player values soar. But it's not clear the clubs get any return from the Olympic tournament -- especially as the timing of the Games is outside soccer's control and, in this case, coincides so unfortunately with the start of the European season.

Brazil and Argentina have struggled to secure the services of the permitted three players older than 23. Here, though, there is no obligation to release. The real conflict has centered on those players born in or after 1985. Lionel Messi was caught in a tug-of-war between FC Barcelona and Argentina before FIFA forced his release. And Werder Bremen's Diego effectively jumped ship to join the Brazil squad -- but he has special reasons.

"It's marvelous to have the opportunity to play in the Olympics," says the attacking midfielder. "It's a dream I have in my career."

It's a dream shared by his country. The Olympic gold medal is the only title Brazil has never won. Realistically, it has only had a chance of making the podium since the eligibility regulations changed in the early 1980s. Since then, Brazil has accumulated two decades of frustration, none bigger than '04, when it failed even to qualify for the Athens Games.

Brazil's place looked assured. All it had to do was draw with Paraguay in the last qualification match in Viña del Mar, Chile. After beating the hosts in the previous match, some of the team appeared to think it had already reached Athens. But those eternal party-spoilers from Paraguay were at their most durable, scoring early and holding on for a 1-0 win. Brazil had to watch on television as South America monopolized the final in Greece with Argentina winning the gold medal and Paraguay the silver.

The man most associated with that failure was Diego. At the time of the qualification tournament in January '04, he wasn't even 19 yet. Even so, he was the team's principal figure, the precocious organizer of Brazil's attacking play.

More than a year earlier, he had been the main force, looking like a junior Zinedine Zidane, in an extraordinarily youthful Santos team that won the '02 Brazilian Championship. The following year, he carried the side through to the final of the Copa Libertadores. With such feats on his resume, it was Diego who had to bear the burden of criticism when Brazil failed to make it to the '04 Games. His youthful horseplay in the team camp was condemned as a lack of seriousness.

But in reality, defeat has often brought out an impressive maturity from the now 23-year-old. When Santos lost to Boca Juniors in the final of the '03 Libertadores, while some of his older teammates wailed tears of despair, Diego was giving calm and collected interviews, accepting that defeat was a part of soccer that, if digested properly, could help pave the way for victories in the future.

He looks back on the '04 flop in the same spirit. "It taught me a lot," he says. "It serves as experience, and lots of good things have happened since, both for me and for Brazil. For example, we've won the Copa América twice since then."

Although a move to FC Porto didn't work out, Diego has flourished in European soccer with Werder Bremen in Germany, and was selected by his fellow professionals as the best player in the Bundesliga. For the national team, though, the path has not been so smooth.

Diego (his full name is Diego Ribas da Cunha) was indeed part of the Brazil squad that won Copa América titles in '04 and '07. But his contribution to both triumphs was limited. In '04, he made five appearances as a substitute. Last summer, he made the first team for the opening game against Mexico, but was pulled off at halftime as Brazil lost 2-0. Later, he made three brief appearances off the bench.

His Copa América experiences are a microcosm of his international career. "I've been involved in the Brazil setup for some time," he says.

His first senior game for Brazil was way back in April '03, when he came off the bench toward the end of a friendly against Mexico in Guadalajara. But in more than five years, he has accumulated just 26 appearances, with two goals. His ex-club colleague Robinho has 13 goals in 50 appearances, despite making his debut more than a year later. At Santos, Diego was the senior partner, but Robinho is the much more established international.

All but six of Diego's Brazil appearances have been as a substitute, and only twice has he been in the starting lineup for a competitive match; that defeat against Mexico last year, and a recent 2-0 loss at Paraguay in World Cup qualification, when he was withdrawn after 69 ineffective minutes.

Three days later, he suffered a bigger indignity when Brazil played host to Argentina in Belo Horizonte. He came on for the injured Anderson shortly after the half-hour mark -- but the substitute was himself replaced by Daniel Alves. He was clearly not pleased, uncharacteristically refusing to speak to the press after the game.

To secure his international future, then, Diego really needs an outstanding Olympic tournament. He declares himself ready for the challenge.

"The No. 10 shirt is different," he says, "especially in the Brazil team. Wearing it is the high point of a career, a wonderful responsibility. The demands it brings are something that have been part of my life since I was a kid, and they go with the territory. I accept the responsibility."

Brazil -- and Diego's own international ambitions -- needs him to be up to the task in China. There is plenty at stake for him -- but nothing at stake for Werder Bremen, which reluctantly has to do without its main creative force in the opening weeks of the German season.

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